Firing teachers: First step to reform or useless effort?

12:01 PM, Mar 10, 2010   |    comments
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By Greg Toppo, USA Today 

Is the wholesale firing of teachers and administrators at an underperforming Rhode Island high school just the kind of get-tough intervention students need? Or is it an unproven, risky disaster waiting to happen?

President Obama angered teachers unions last week by coming out in favor of the firings at Central Falls High School.

"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," he said.

Education reformers say Obama was correct to support Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, for "doing the right thing for kids."

But Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says the teachers "have been scapegoated" in a school that was showing signs of recovery.

Scratch beneath the surface, and it's not clear who's right.

Examples of successful school turnarounds abound, but critics say the evidence is anecdotal. They point to instances in which getting rid of teachers and principals had barely any effect at all.

More pain ahead

Ready or not, teachers across the USA will soon be getting more pink slips like those in Rhode Island. Duncan this month will release a list of 5,000 of the nation's lowest-performing schools, all of which will be required to undertake some sort of reform.

Boston public schools announced last week that staff at six struggling schools would have to reapply for their jobs. California officials said Monday that 188 low-performing schools would be subject to similar reforms.

Richard Lemons of The Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income students, says restructuring "doesn't seem to be a magic bullet," but that with great principals, proven teachers and a rigorous curriculum, it can produce "remarkable turnarounds." Though turnarounds may bring talented staff to needy schools, the hard part "is actually retaining them" for a few years.

In an extensive look at school restructuring, the Center on Education Policy, a centrist Washington, D.C., think tank, last December found that replacing staff helped improve many schools to the point they could exit "school improvement" sanctions laid out under No Child Left Behind. But it noted that most of the successful schools had a large pool of applicants, a plan to overcome a "failing" reputation, union support and hiring systems that didn't rely on principals alone.

In about half of the cases studied, schools didn't improve much. In many schools, union rules compromised restaffing, and principals said they couldn't find replacement staff that was much better. In other cases, principals said they spent so much time over the summer hiring staff that they had "little time to plan for the new school year."

The policy center concluded that the restructuring models promoted by Obama are an improvement over No Child Left Behind but warned that because they include "specific directives that are not supported by research, it is unwise to prescribe them" to schools. "The federal government should be careful about directing people to do things when it doesn't have the evidence," says center President Jack Jennings.

Jennings' team looked at restructuring in six states. In most cases, principals were first to get the ax, but he says that can just make matters worse. "The problem wasn't getting a new principal - the problem was they had too many new principals. They didn't have stability of leadership. It seemed like they got a new principal every year or two."

Seeing evidence of turnaround

Duncan says he's not requiring schools to use one strategy, but he signaled that he's satisfied with the evidence on turnarounds. He cited schools in Colorado, Los Angeles and Chicago, where he was schools chief before Obama chose him. "What is absolutely unacceptable is just accepting the status quo."

In Chicago, Duncan brought in the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which now runs 14 schools. Most have raised student achievement, but while Chicago boasts a surplus of available teachers, academy spokeswoman Bridget Altenburg says it's "not pulling the best teachers from around the city - we're training them" at $70,000 apiece for year-long, intensive residencies.

Ironically, Central Falls' notoriety may be the thing that helps it improve. Since announcing the firings last month, Gallo has said she'll restart negotiations with the local union. She notes that, until now, the district has "not had the wherewithal to truly attract the right players to this little speck of ground." But with intense media interest in the past few weeks, she has been inundated with offers of help - as well as résumés from educators wanting "desperately" to show that they can improve student achievement. "I don't believe I will have a problem staffing this (school) - absolutely not."

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